Home » Fortunes to Felony: The Merciless Bludgeoning of a Forbes Folk Hero

Fortunes to Felony: The Merciless Bludgeoning of a Forbes Folk Hero

The media's narrative craftsmanship shines through in the saga of Isabel dos Santos, where the portrayal of Africa's former richest woman ascends into fame and descends into infamy

by Editorial Team

Crude Origins

The origins of the story of Africa’s richest woman do not begin amid the savannahs of Angola but rather thousands of miles away in another oil-rich land. Isabel dos Santos was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, a constituent republic of the Soviet Union at that time. Her father, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the future president of Angola, was one of the 50,000 Africans who studied in that great Communist project, which offered free education to Africans from countries with Socialist regimes. Isabel’s Russian mother, Tatiana Kukanova, was a national chess champion whom her father had met during his education in Baku.

As a child, Isabel then relocated to Angola, a country going through its birth pangs as an independent nation. Having recently won its freedom from Portugal in a brutal independence war, the country would then remain mired in a civil war that would last until 2002. In 1979, the country’s previous president, Agostinho Neto, died, and Isabel’s father Jose Eduardo became the country’s first president. She started her education in primary school in Luanda but continued her studies at St. Paul’s School for Girls boarding school in London, England, in the fashion of so many of the world’s global elite. For her higher education, dos Santos remained in the United Kingdom, studying electrical engineering at King’s College in London.

Following university, Isabel gradually began her first forays into the corporate world. In 1992, the stop-start nature of Angola’s civil war flared up again. So dos Santos moved back to Europe and started her first job at a recycling firm in Germany as a project manager engineer for a company named Urbana 2000, a subsidiary of Jembas Group (a multidisciplinary Angola-based company offering services in everything from energy to telecommunications to water filtration).

Makings of the Isabel Juggernaut

Her entrepreneurial career began with her return to home shores in the early 2000s, where she launched the Miami Beach Club, one of the first nightclubs and beach restaurants on Luanda Island. The country had evolved into a state-run capitalist model similar to China in 1992 following her former Communist father’s reelection and bid to liberalize the country’s economy.

Her business portfolio would continue to expand and gradually encompass holdings in various industries, like in state energy company Sonangol, responsible for 95 percent of Angola’s exports and where she also served as CEO, to vehicle companies providing transport for the country’s diamond industry. Perhaps most notable was her establishment of Unitel, Angola’s largest mobile phone network and the first privatized one. Privatized from the original state company, Unitel received investment from other members of her father’s inner circle, such as his generals.

Investment flowed into the country from many European countries, but most prominently of all from Angola’s old colonial master, Portugal, with 50 percent of her equities nestled in Portuguese companies. Her close relationship with Portuguese finance earned her the nickname “Queen of Africa, Empress of Portugal” from Spanish newspaper Del Barrio in 2014.

Forging an Icon: Santos in the Forbes’ Limelight

Isabel dos Santos achieved new heights of fame when she was introduced to the Forbes Rich List in 2013. Not only was she declared the richest African billionaire with a net worth of $3 billion, but Forbes also boasted that she had proved her worth in a male-dominated arena. With Forbes, a media alliance was forged, as the publication portrayed her as a self-made billionaire, emphasizing her entrepreneurial spirit and role as a modernizing force in African business practices and a potential role model to other women to succeed in business.

Forbes, followed by a string of other international media, wove a tale of dos Santos’ image as a quasi-angelic emblem of African success, a shining light of hope and modernity in an otherwise benighted continent of darkness. Her multicultural and international background further added to the intrigue and richness of her narrative.

Dos Santos’ celestial alliance with the international press became even more lucrative as she acquired the rights to its Lusophone edition, which provided another platform for her to assert her influence and control her narrative as a patron saint of the international business community.

Perhaps her rise was also fitting for the immediate post-Cold War world. A woman born of the president of a country that was a bastion of Socialism in the heart of Africa who met his wife while studying in a Communist superpower had now eagerly embraced the brand of African capitalism as her country’s consumer market continued to expand.

Rise to Ruin: The Sudden Downfall of Isabel dos Santos

When the winds of Angola’s political climate changed after her father’s departure from the Angolan presidency, dos Santos was unequipped to navigate the new turbulent waters of Angolan politics. Just three years after her father’s departure, she experienced a reputational and financial downfall. This downturn was a storm born of these new winds of change in Angola’s political climate, which sought to dramatically alter the narrative surrounding dos Santos.

Dos Santos found her wings clipped in searing corruption accusations that emerged in 2020. These allegations starkly opposed the image previously meticulously sculpted by international media, adorning her with the halo of a self-made woman.

In 2018, the Angolan government pursued legal action against Isabel dos Santos for alleged corruption and is presently seeking extradition. For this reason, she has not visited Angola since 2018, spending her time between London and Dubai. In 2020, a comprehensive investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in collaboration with 36 other media organizations, brought to light the business dealings of dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former president. In doing so, they had upended dos Santos’ made-in-America celestial narrative.

A Fallen Angel’s Earthly Machinations: Allegations Against dos Santos

Documents from 1980 to 2018 revealed that dos Santos capitalized on advantageous, nepotistic transactions in several pivotal industries of Angola during her father’s presidency. She was accused of diverting millions from state funds into a sprawling network of more than 400 companies and front companies in 41 countries.

Further disclosures from the documents indicated that dos Santos’ late husband utilized state resources to secure a share in De Grisogono, a renowned Swiss luxury jeweler, demonstrating how deep the roots of nepotism and corruption had buried themselves into her father’s presidency.

Yet, the fallen angel stood defiant as dos Santos promptly asserted that her fortune resulted from diligent effort and astute business insight. Despite her claims, the accumulating evidence of her complicity in corrupt practices presented a compelling case that was challenging to refute. This juxtaposition of her defense with the accumulating evidence painted a picture of a once-celestial being now entangled in mortal controversies, struggling to uphold her tarnished halo in the face of overwhelming earthly realities.

The Media Reckoning

It was not just Isabel dos Santos’ who lost her celestial glow. The corrupt dealings also cast a shadow over the credibility of Forbes and similar-minded international media, seemingly not offering an apology or clarification to their global audience. Press suddenly shifted their editorial approach regarding dos Santos, a woman they had once praised to high heaven.

Forbes removed her from their billionaire list in 2021 as dos Santos faced asset freeze after asset freeze in countries across the globe.

However, when Isabel dos Santos faced allegations, Forbes and other international media were expected to engage in introspection and potentially acknowledge their role in her elevation. Yet, this reflective action was noticeably absent, prompting readers to consider the stark difference between the publications that previously commended dos Santos and the ones now highlighting her alleged wrongdoings.

The absence of introspection brought to light a wider issue of media accountability. Typically, when a media platform raises an individual to a renowned status, it is entrusted with ensuring ongoing alignment with its ethical and journalistic standards. In the case of dos Santos, the media proved to be no guardian angel of journalistic practices and ethics.

Ethical Dilemma

The story of Isabel dos Santos’ rapid fall from grace brings media outlets like Forbes to an ethical crossroads, challenging them to consider their societal impact. The narratives they paint across their channels become part of the collective consciousness, influencing perceptions, decisions, and policies. Media platforms wield enormous power in our society, deciding whether or not we see a person as an angel or a demon.

Forbes is part of an ecosystem of highly influential digital distribution channels, including other species such as news outlets, social media platforms, and the ever-growing blogosphere. This ecosystem interacts, competes, and collaborates, resulting in the ever-evolving landscape of information dissemination and shaping public perception.

Journalism’s Crucible

The international media’s handling of the dos Santos story indicates a broader crucible in which modern journalism finds itself. In the age of infotainment, where content is consumed rapidly and the next story is always beckoning, the pressure to captivate can sometimes eclipse the mandate to inform with depth and balance.

The dos Santos case is not isolated; it is a microcosm of a global phenomenon where media often grapple with the delicate balance between storytelling and factual reporting. The crucible can become a breeding ground for sensationalism, where the temptation of eye-catching headlines threatens journalistic integrity.

Just like ready meals satisfy our immediate cravings, the constant temptation of “the next breaking news piece” often compromises the nutritional value of our infotainment.

The Media’s Moral Compass

The dos Santos case is not an isolated incident but another chapter in a long media saga and is not the first time Forbes or other international media have previously highlighted individuals who have taken dubious paths in life. It will probably not be the last. The dos Santos narrative serves as a reminder that media outlets must hold the powerful to account, regardless of past affiliations or the allure of a captivating success story. The international press’ journey with dos Santos reminds the media to remain vigilant, to question continually, and to reassess the stories it tells.

Dos Santos’ fall from grace almost overnight recast an entrepreneurial angel as a mortal, mired in trials of legal battles and moral questioning, became a parable of hubris. Her tale exposed the vulnerability of those who, once perched so high, must inevitably face the gravity of their actions. The same must be true of publications and media outlets who fail to investigate and scrutinize their current darlings of the moment properly.

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